Around the world there are myriad variations of the churches that fit under the general banner of Reformed. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) alone boasts membership of 215 denominations in 107 countries with over seventy five million members, the majority of which are in the southern hemisphere. This vast number still does not contain all the denominations with roots in the 16th-century Reformation led by John Calvin, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, and others. Many of these denominations, especially in the United States, developed after previous church bodies split apart over irreconcilable differences, while others exist separately because of geographic location, or ethnic origin. Some others have been drawn together into larger groups or denominations, such as the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom or the Uniting Church in Australia. While belonging to the WARC, to foster common mission and ministry, relations between some of these various ‘partners’ are tenuous at best. An example is found in the way many members of the Christian Reformed Church in the U.S. refer to the Presbyterian Church (USA) disparagingly as Neo-Reformed, while some of the latter refers to the former as Neo-Nazi. Among those that have recently united, there has been a blending of polity and theology, or at least a tolerance developed for varying beliefs and processes within the same body, that may leave some wondering whether they still possess a truly definable theological identity.
Furthermore, within single denominations conservative and liberal factions battle over issues that threaten to further disassemble church bodies. Within this milieu, is it possible to isolate common beliefs or doctrines that could still distinctly be called Reformed theology? That is the question this paper seeks to answer – in 3000 words or less, of course. Reformed theology did not just appear by divine revelation one day to one person. It developed over time, sometimes based on what had come before and other times in vehement reaction against previous doctrine and theology, but always built on the foundations of earlier beliefs. Reformed churches retained confessional standards just as the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches did because, ultimately, it meant that the interpretation of scripture was prevented from being a freewheeling, wholly individual endeavour as initially encountered by Luther with the advent of the Anabaptists. Unlike the development of the Lutheran Book of Concord in 1577, which contained the correct Lutheran interpretation of scripture for all time, Reformed churches have never restricted themselves to a rigid set of confessions that define Reformed orthodoxy ad infinitum. For almost five centuries, churches separated by time and/or space have created new confessions in response to contemporary issues that do not necessarily supercede or invalidate those that preceded them, but continue to inform Reformed theology and keep it dynamic. Additionally, confessions are considered impermanent because they are the efforts of limited, fallible human beings, and their authority is ultimately subordinated to the higher authority of scripture.
Since John Calvin has been, many times, credited with being the father of Reformed theological thought, it makes sense to look at some of the hallmarks of his beliefs, keeping in mind that the development of Reformed theology did not rest solely on his shoulders. Calvin’s use of language, at first glance, seemed unwieldy as noted by Hugh T. Kerr, the author of Calvin’s Institutes: A New Compend, in his article in Theology Today, “no matter how good translations can be, Calvin’s language seems ponderous and turgid for today, and there is no way to make his writing ‘inclusive’.” None-the-less, Calvin spoke with the voice of one steeped in Scripture and whose heart, as he inscribed on his crest, was devoted “completely and sincerely” to God in Jesus Christ.
Within a letter to Farel regarding his call to return to Geneva, Calvin wrote in 1540, “… had I the choice at my own disposal, nothing would be less agreeable to me than to follow your advice [to return to Geneva]. But when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart, presented as a sacrifice to the Lord.” Calvin’s concept of humans belonging wholly to God – owing everything humanity is and has to God – was a recurring theme in his writings. From the notion of God’s supremacy over everything, and humanity’s chief purpose as being to glorify and enjoy God forever, developed the theology of the sovereignty or majesty of God. Significant also, however, is that his “call” was rightly recognized when it comes from others – “…and whenever I am at a loss for counsel of my own, I submit myself to those by whom I hope that the Lord Himself [sic] will speak to me.” Stemming from these two concepts is one of the principle components of Reformed polity – the presbyteral system of elders which includes ministers and laity. Many times it has been objected that polity is not theology, but in this case it most certainly is. The sovereignty of God, combined with Calvin’s belief that God is more likely heard through others rather than individual revelation, led to the development of Calvin’s preferred system of governance. In a debate of 1580, when Girolamo Zanchi backed the institution of episcopacy in Geneva, the late Calvin’s theology won the day and the voices for a continued presbyteral system prevailed. This system steadfastly maintains an order in which individuals are not subject to the authority of another individual, but to a collective body that is under the authority of God. It also constantly affirms the “priesthood of all believers” in which all Christians function in ministry. While arguments continue, and insults abound, about whether or not each denomination or faction holds God supreme, virtually all Reformed churches continue this system of governance.
Book Two: The Knowledge of God the Creator of Calvin’s Institutes discussed the theological concept of the “total depravity” of humans, or “total inability” as some have labeled it. While there is no avoiding the judgment of severe corruption with which he indicts humans, Calvin did not relegate people to the level of earthworms. His thought, overly simplified here of course, was based on the Fall of Adam casting humanity into ruin, a state it must seek to escape. In considering their own humanity, people are prompted to seek the goodness of God and recognize their inability to escape the conditions of sin themselves. When humans compare themselves to the obvious ‘majesty’ of God, there is no choice but to recognize their own impurity and corruption. In this process, humans become aware of the three-fold nature of God’s relationship with Creation – Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer. Piety occurs when a person recognizes God’s sovereignty in his or her life, by virtue of God’s creative and redemptive action through Jesus Christ, and responds to God in absolute reverence. While some churches and denominations tread more lightly than others in relation to the concept of human depravity, virtually all Reformed churches retain this doctrine to some degree.
Since salvation and eternal blessings are made available to humans though faith in the gospel, Calvin delineated how God made provision for the dissemination of the gospel to all – the Church. Calvin expounded that God has chosen to speak to our brokenness through interpreters within the church, which is the living image of God in the world, rather than drive us away in fear of the magnitude of God’s actual presence. God instituted pastors and teachers “by whose lips he might edify his people, …and sacraments, which we feel by experience to be most useful helps in fostering and confirming our faith.” This church existed where the word was preached and heard purely, and the sacraments administered as prescribed by Christ in Scripture, and was the “whole multitude of people spread over the earth who profess to worship one God and Christ.”
Calvin also believed the church to be God’s method of agency in the world. While prayer was the “chief exercise of piety”, activity in the world was the chief response of the pious to God’s call, and the Church was the agent of that activity. “Calvin’s piety can be characterized as intensely activist, a devotion to God lived out in the practical present daily world,” described Calvin’s belief that real devotion to God was demonstrated by caring for your neighbor and keeping to just and righteous actions. In sermons, the Institutes, commentaries and letters to individuals, Calvin clearly espoused tenets of Christian charity – not as magnanimous acts of a ‘more elevated’ person to a ‘lesser’ one, but with a clear understanding that any worldly attributes were given by God to be used for the collective benefit of all God’s children. Calvin exhorted all to not only keep the Sabbath themselves, but to ensure that all in their employ, or all in poverty, could also observe it by not having to work. It wasn’t simple benevolence that led people to treat employees fairly, or to share with the poor, but also a righteous response to God’s call to keep the Commandments. God demanded this observance of God’s law as an expression of service to the divine will. This aspect of Reformed thought was eventually usurped during the decades following the Industrial Revolution when the upper classes, those characterized by Marx as the bourgeoisie, passed laws forbidding work of any kind on Sundays. Under the guise of charitable treatment of the working class, it resulted in the removal of opportunities, widely used by the commoners, to improve their financial conditions by participating in extralegal commerce on their only ‘day off’.
Within Calvin’s formulation of church, flowed a theological concept that has long been considered distinctively Reformed – the doctrine of predestination or election. Many, both within the Reformed tradition and without, wrestle with predestination because of the incorrect assumption that it means that God controls our every move, just as a puppeteer controls his or her marionettes. Calvin argued from Scripture that God has “predestined” or “elected” some people to be saved in Jesus Christ and others not to be. “The “invisible church” were not only those the saints who dwell on the earth, but all the elect who have existed from the beginning of the world.” Calvin’s writings also discussed the visible church – the universal church in the world – as containing both the elect and the reprobate. A common summary has been, “All the elect are or will be in the church, but not all in the church are elect.” He asserted that it is not a human responsibility to distinguish between the elect and non-elect – the saved and the reprobate – since “that is for God alone, not for us, to do.”
Some later forms of Calvinism departed from some of Calvin’s theology. Beginning shortly after Calvin’s death, somewhat opposing theologies developed. Some churches adopted a scripturally literal approach complete with rigid moralizing, others maintained a more scholastic, investigative approach, while yet others vacillated between the two poles. Christopher Burchill wrote, “Indeed, in his major statement on the question, which appeared under the title of ‘Early-Orthodoxy and Rationalism’ in Barth’s Theologische Studien in 1963, Bizer was able to identify a series of issues on which the theologians of Geneva and Heidelberg had departed from the teaching of their mentor within less than twenty years of Calvin’s death.” Burchill argues that Bizer credited Beza and Zanchi, among others, with over-rationalizing Reformed theology resulting in a “form of dogmatic rationalism quite alien to the spirit and the intention of the reformers.” What resulted, and has continued to this day in some churches, placed new emphasis on the objective authority of scripture as divinely inspired and resulted in a rigidity of scriptural interpretation and moral absolutism rivaling the Lutheran Book of Concord. Another extreme was the development of Universalists from the Reformed tradition that, due to its rejection of dogma and doctrine altogether, ceased to claim any connection. Presbyterians, congregationalists, Puritans and Churches of Christ all developed from the same Reformed roots, but veered to varying degrees towards one pole of theological thought or the other.
Some Calvinist attitudes seemed to adopt a sense that, despite not knowing the identity of the elect, God’s favor in someone’s life could be discerned by their economic and social status. Indeed, the Second Helvetic Confession states, “For the preaching of the Gospel is to be heard, and it is to be believed; and it is to be held as beyond doubt that if you believe and are in Christ, you are elected” (5.059), which, when read in isolation as on the PC(USA) website, seems to promote the idea that election can be affected by the actions of the believer. While Calvin’s Genevan church did institute presbyteral review in cases in which a person’s outward actions did not seem to indicate a pious lifestyle, it fell short of ascertaining the identity of the elect. This changing attitude about the ability to identify the elect also gave rise, in the United States at least, to certain later Puritanical beliefs that appear to be in contrast with classic Reformed ideals:
- The belief that, while the elect were technically unknown, God favored them and God’s favor was obvious in their economic and social circumstances. The wealthy were more favored by God than the poor.
- The belief that God ordained civil leaders and they were not to be questioned. Those that rose to power were obviously favored by God. To actively dispute this was not only unpatriotic, but approached blasphemy. (This, however, did not reflect poorly on the religious refugees who made up a great number of the early American population because of the next belief.)
- The belief that all humanity is essentially unworthy of salvation, and that the select few who God blessed with material goods or power, and used them in a Godly way, were to lead, direct and govern the actions and morals of society leading them towards a place of worthiness.
- The belief that, since God favored them with material goods, it was acceptable to keep the vast majority of them to secure their family’s future, rather than reinvest it to create more jobs and wealth.
Many Calvinists, for instance the eminent, American civil war era pastor and professor R.L. Dabney, defended slavery and workplace exploitation as “the useful and righteous remedy [for] the ignorance and vice in the laboring classes.” To dismantle these institutions would have presented hardships for the righteous people of Virginia who were unwittingly drawn into the sinful practice of slaveholding, but came to rely on it for their welfare. Calvin proclaimed that giving in to self-interest was a pestilence that most effectively leads to destruction. and “whatever person we deal with, we shall treat him [sic] not only moderately and modestly but also cordially and as a friend.” Calvin clearly proposed that, upon meeting anyone, no consideration of his or her apparent evil or earthly station be given, just recognition of the image of God in their face. Calvin, being widely understood as a ‘father’ of capitalism, seemed to propose activity in the world that is incompatible with a capitalist society as it has developed in the current age. In an age in which accumulation of wealth, conspicuous consumption and control of resources is expected, if not admired to a great extent, Calvin’s message seems almost anti-capitalist.
To date, Reformed tradition has spawned a wide range of theological belief. Reformed churches and leaders have been on both sides of many social debates – slavery, modernism/fundamentalism and gay ordination/marriage to name but a few. Some, both liberal and conservative alike, maintain that they are protecting the right interpretation of scripture, as if the Word of God depends on human protection. What is at risk is the ever greater fragmentation of Reformed theology that may eventually lead to its loss of any distinctive qualities.
Although somewhat ideological, perhaps, there are still some core elements of Reformed theology – the sovereignty of God, the total “depravity” of humankind, election, the primacy of scripture engaged with the heart and mind – that combine to give it one of its most enduring qualities. Humans cannot know the mind or will of God. Humans cannot definitively interpret scripture because they are fallible. Humility is an a priori consequence. The willingness to formulate, and accept, new confessions, as well as the continued observance of presbyteral process, is the direct result of the knowledge that no human can claim to possess the ‘one’ right answer. Reformed equates with searching for, but avoiding the proclamation of, moral and theological absolutes – being prompted to listen to, and learn from, other traditions within and without the Christian church. This isn’t a process of making the church somehow relevant to a broken world, but instead becoming aware the existing relevance of faith and truth in God’s creation, in which all people share complicity for current conditions. Rather than requiring acceptance of all theological ideas, it demands a readiness to engage and discuss – to collectively attempt to hear God’s voice speaking through others – especially when it’s painful or challenges preconceptions based on potentially outdated, unethical or elitist notions. Reformed theology recognizes that every human is a child of God, and has a potential place in God’s elect. There is no human arbiter of God’s grace or salvation, but there is a call for the church to be God’s agent to all the world, and to seek to alleviate the conditions resulting from the exercise of power and privilege by a world entrenched in self-interest.
Reformed tradition maintains a respect for the notion of “once reformed, always reforming”. Humility is the key component of maintaining a willingness to dialogue, learn and change. It is plausible that, with each episode of absolute certainty that is expressed with respect to the interpretation of scripture and determining the will of God, a little more of Reformed theology will die.
Burchill, Christopher. 1984. Visiting Assistant Professor in Core Humanities at Villanova University. Calvin against the Calvinists, lecture delivered at a conference in Aberdeen [http://www74.homepage.villanova.edu/christopher.burchill/my%20papers/Calvin%20against%20the%20Calvinists.pdf].
Calvin, John. 1581. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. PDF version accessed through online subscription to Cokebury’s iPreach Biblical resources available at http://www.cokesburylibraries.com/NXT/.
Campbell, John M. 2003. Being Biblical. London: The United Reformed Church.
Capetz, Paul E. 2001. “Defending the Reformed Tradition? – Problematic Aspects of the Appeal to Biblical and Confessional Authority in the Present Theological Crisis Confronting the Presbyterian Church (USA).” Journal of Presbyterian History, 79:1 – Spring 2001. (Louisville: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)).
Gonzales, Justo L. 1985. The Story of Christianity,Vol 2. The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperCollins.
Grisham, Jules. 2000. “A Re-Presentation of Reformed Theology”, IIIM Magazine Online V2:7 Feb 14, 2000, (Winter Springs , Florida: Third Millennium Ministries). [http://www.thirdmill.org/files/english/html/pt/PT.h.Grisham.RePresentation.html] *
Kerr, Hugh T. 1990. “Reflections on Revisions”, Theology Today Vol 47, No 2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary.
McKee, Elsie Anne, editor & translator. 2001. John Calvin – Writings on Pastoral Piety. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
Otto, Randall. 2002. “The Remnant Church.” Journal for Christian Theological Research V7 2002. [http://home.apu.edu/~CTRF/articles/2002_articles/otto.pdf]
* These texts, being electronic versions structured within Java or html framework, have neither numbered pages nor individual url’s. An effort was made to identify them by subtitle and paragraph number within the section.
 World Alliance of Reformed Churches website, “Who We Are”, WARC on the Web, [http://www.warc.ch/who/index.html], accessed 16 Sept, 2009.
 Campbell, 5.
 Capetz, 27.
 Kerr, 117.
 McKee, 51.
 McKee, 51.
 Burchill, ¶ 9.
 McKee, 67-73.
 Calvin, 940.
 McKee, 81
 McKee, 249
 McKee, 265
 Little, Andrew J., Marx on Religion and its Role in Oppression, Unpublished paper: Methodist Theological School in Ohio, Delaware, Ohio, 10 December, 2002.
 Calvin, 944.
 McKee, 80.
 Burchill, 3.
 op cit.
 Presbyterian Church (USA) website, page= “Who We Are – What We Believe – Predestination.”, Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Church (USA). [www.pcusa.org]. Accessed 15 April, 2004.
 Little, Andrew J. “The Myth or Reality of American Civil Religion.” Unpublished paper: Methodist Theological School in Ohio, Delaware, Ohio, 29 March, 2003.
 Dabney, R.L., A Defense of Virginia, originally published 1867, re-released: Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications: 1977. 207.
 Calvin, 886
 McKee, 275.